HC Deb 20 May 1941 vol 371 cc1401-3
Mr. Lees-Smith

Has the Prime Minister any statement to make about the war situation?

The Prime Minister

Since we last were together several important events have happened on which perhaps I might presume to say a few words to the House. The victory of Amba Alagi has resulted in the surrender of the Duke of Aosta and his whole remaining forces, and must be considered to bring major organised resistance by the Italians in Abyssinia to an end. No doubt other fighting will continue for some time in the South, but this certainly wears the aspect of the culmination of a campaign which I think is one of the most remarkable ever fought by British or Imperial arms. It reflects the utmost credit on Generals Cunningham and Platt, who discharged so well the task assigned to them by the Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, Sir Archibald Waveil. When we look back to January, I find that the best expert opinion fixed the middle or end of May as the earliest date at which we could advance upon Kismayu, and anyone who has acquainted himself with the geography will see the enormous achievements, beyond anything that could have been hoped for, which have been accomplished by audacious action and by extraordinary competence in warfare in those desolate countries.

I take this opportunity of pointing out that in this campaign the South African Army, strong forces raised in the Union of South Africa, have played a most distinguished part. They were ordered by General Smuts to go forward, and, now that this theatre is closing down, they are to move northward to the Mediterranean. But also two British Indian divisions have gained laurels in the fighting at Kassala and all the way from Kassala to Keren and in the final event. These Indian divisions consist of six Indian and three British battalions. I am assured that the greatest admiration is felt at the extraordinary military qualities displayed by the Indian troops and that their dash, their ardour and their faithful endurance of all the hardships have won them the regard of their British comrades. Sometimes we have seen cases where not a single British officer remained and the battalion conducted itself in the most effective manner. Altogether this campaign is one which reflects very high honour upon the soldiers of India of all castes and creeds who were engaged. I feel that I could not refer to this matter without bringing it in a direct and emphatic manner to the attention of the-House.

The second event which has occurred since we were last here is the sharp and well sustained action at Sollum. This is of interest because it was fought exclusively between British and German troops. It has not, I suppose, been found worth while to maintain Italian troops at the end of such a long and precarious line of communications. Fighting was severe but, of course, not on a very large scale. Several of our motorised brigades, supported by armoured brigades and strong artillery, advanced about 30 miles from the position where they had been deployed for some weeks past and attacked the enemy, taking Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo, and the armoured troops then got round the tanks and were very well situated about one o'clock on the 17th. The Germans launched a resolute counter-attack by about 40 tanks and recaptured Capuzzo. That entailed the withdrawal of the armoured brigade from the advantageous position which it had attained. The operation, therefore, was indecisive. The Germans claim 100 British prisoners, but we have 500 Germans in our hands, and the losses in tanks and in personnel on their side are certainly as heavy as, if not heavier than ours. These operations must be regarded on the background that for more than six weeks past the Germans have been proclaiming that they would shortly be in Suez and have been making much credit with the neutral world by spreading at large statements of this kind. It is, therefore, satisfactory for us to see that we have retained strong offensive power and that the fighting is being maintained, at any rate, on even terms in the advance areas of the approaches to Egypt.

The third matter is not yet known to the House. For the last few days our reconnoitring aeroplanes have noticed very heavy concentrations of German aircraft of all kinds on the aerodromes of Southern Greece. We have attacked them night after night, inflicting considerable damage. It is now clear that these concentrations were the prelude to an attack upon Crete. An air-borne attack in great strength started this morning, and what cannot fail to be a serious battle has begun and is developing. Our troops there—British, New Zealand and Greek Forces—are under the command of General Freyberg, and we feel confident that most stern and resolute resistance will be offered to the enemy.